Parmesan Gremolata Smashed Potatoes

Nothing says Spring quite like lemon to me.  It’s the vibrant color.  The crisp flavor.  The promise of blue skies and warm weather.  The way it wakes up your tastebuds after winter.

Chilled glasses of freshly squeezed lemonade topped with sprigs of mint.

A drizzle over asparagus or spinach or grilled fish.

Lemon meringue pie.  Sorbet.  Roast chicken.

And one of my new favorites — lemony smashed potatoes.

As soon as I saw this recipe over at Use Real Butter, I knew I had to try them.  Come on, who doesn’t love some smashed potatoes.  And the gremolata just ups the whole game.  The only change I made was to decrease the salt down to 1/2 teaspoon.  But that’s only because we’ve been trying to cut back on our salt intake and as a result seem to notice it a lot more in food now.

If you’re still looking for a side dish for your Easter dinner, try this one.  It’s exactly how you’d expect Spring to taste — bright, crisp and flavorful.

And, if you have kids, this is a great recipe for them to help with.  Of course, if yours is like mine, you might need to serve it with a side of ketchup.

Parmesan Gremolata Smashed Potatoes
(barely adapted from Use Real Butter)

Serves 4

Ingredients
2 lbs. fingerling potatoes, scrubbed clean
1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp sea salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed, and minced
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced (should be about 1/4 cup when minced)
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Directions
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.  Drain the potatoes in a colander and let dry.

Drizzle a little olive oil on a shallow rimmed baking sheet.  Place the potatoes on the baking sheet in a single layer, coating the bottom of each potato in some of the oil.  And here’s where the kid friendliness comes in — using a meat tenderizer (or heavy-bottomed drinking glass, measuring cup, etc.) gently smash each potato flat. The smashed potatoes should be about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick.  (Optional tip for parents:  Say “Smash” like the Hulk each time and your kid will be even more delighted.)

Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the smashed potatoes.  Sprinkle with salt.  (More fun for the kids.)  Pop the pan in the oven and roast for 30 minutes, flipping the potatoes over half-way through.

While the potatoes are roasting, make the gremolata — Mix the garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and Parmesan cheese together in a small bowl.  When the potatoes are done, remove them from the oven and (in a large bowl) toss them with the gremolata.

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Tuesdays with Dorie: Pizza Rustica

“I thought you said we were having pizza.”  My husband cast a rather dubious look at his plate.

“It is.  It’s Pizza Rustica.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not sure.  I think it’s kind of like an Italian quiche.”

“Hmmm.”  He sniffed at his fork.  Took a bite.  And eventually went back for seconds.

That’s all you need to know.

For any history buffs out there, Pizza Rustica (sometimes also called Easter pie) is a savory Italian pie typically served at, you guessed it, Easter.  If you’re not into history, it’s a sweet pie dough filled with a mixture of cured meats, cheese, cheese and more cheese.  Oh, and there are a couple of eggs holding all that cheesy goodness together.

All I can say is, if you’re going to break your Lenten fast, this is the way to do it.  I found some recipes that call for up to six different types of cheese and almost as many cured meats to be added to the mix.  I guess this is the reason Italy was the “Eat” portion of Eat, Pray, Love.

The most surprising thing about this dish is the sweetness of the dough.  As my husband remarked, it’s like eating “scrambled eggs wrapped inside a sugar cookie.”  Don’t let that description put you off.   The taste experience is a little like drinking a nuanced glass of wine.  The first thing you notice is the light flavor of the ricotta.  Then the proscuitto leaps out to provide a wonderful salty depth.  And as you finish the bite, you’re left with the sweet finish from the dough.  (Alright, pretentious metaphor over.)

Like the Irish Soda Bread recipe I’m kind of amazed at how good this was for only using a few simple ingredients. I was worried it would  be a bit bland because of the lack of herbs or seasonings, but didn’t find that to be the case at all.  Of course, when you’ve got that much cheese, how can you really go wrong?

If you’re looking for something a little different this Easter, try this.  It would be a delightful addition for brunch.  With that nice glass of wine, of course.  🙂

Thanks to Emily at Capitol Region Dining and Raelynn at The Place They Call Home for hosting this week.  You can check out their blogs for more details on the recipe.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

In honor of the return of Mad Men, (Oh, Don Draper, how I have missed you!) I decided to serve up a 1960’s inspired dinner.

First up, the quintessential pineapple & brown sugar bejeweled ham —

Look familiar?

And for dessert — well that was easy.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake was my mom’s go-to dessert.  I remember it gracing the table of many a family dinner or bake sale booth.   So I thought I’d ask if she’d share the recipe.  She, of course, was delighted.  I hurriedly grabbed pen and paper and prepared to discover the secret to this peculiar American dessert.

“Okay, ” my mom started, “first spread butter and brown sugar in a baking pan.  Arrange the pineapple rings, maraschino cherries and pecans on top.”

So far so good.  And then —

“Open a box of yellow cake mix . . . ”

I put down my pen.  Clearly this wasn’t going to work.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Her generation embraced the new new fad of box mixes and tv dinners that many of us are now starting to shun.  Last year, I read Jerry Della Femina’s tale of the advertising trenches From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.  As a copywriter myself, I’m intrigued by the whole Mad Men, three martini lunch era of advertising.  One of my favorite anecdotes concerned the early marketing of boxed cake mixes.  Initially, all you had to do was add water.  Housewives in focus groups hated the product, not because of the taste, but because it was so easy — they didn’t feel like they were cooking.  The solution?  Add water and an egg.  For some reason, the act of cracking an egg into the mix gave the women a sense of validation that they were cooking.  Cake mixes began to fly off the shelves.

Fascinating, huh?  But it still didn’t solve my dessert dilemma.  I could Google, but that seemed too easy.  And how would I know I could trust the recipe I found?  Out of curiosity, I turned to my beloved Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  And there, on page 310 — Pineapple Upside Down Cake.  Thomas Keller-style.  Score.  (I will share my undying love for Mr. Keller in another post.  For now, let’s just say that he’s my Tebow.)

This recipe did not disappoint.  A moist, light cake and fresh pineapple carmelized with brown sugar and flecks of vanilla.  It really is an elegant take on this rather iconic dessert.  If all you’ve had is the canned pineapple variety of this cake, do yourself a favor and try the Ad Hoc recipe.   It’s easy, delicious, and looks beautiful when unmolded from the cake pan.  Still not sure?  Did I mention there’s rum in it?  Thought that would change your mind.  You can find the recipe here.

If Betty had made this cake, Don might have come home from work more often.  Okay, maybe if she made this cake and wasn’t such a b*tch.

Baked Potato Soup

The two biggest things I miss while living in L.A. — parking spaces and rain.  I get way too excited if I see either of them.  However, having lived here for awhile, one thing has rubbed off on me.  I hate driving in the rain.  For Angelenos, rain is our kryptonite.  Sure the surfers get excited, but most everyone else regards the darkening skies with trepidation.  I’ve known people who’ve called in sick to work, kept their kids home from school or cancelled dinner reservations all because it was raining.  Seriously.

So on a chilly, rainy day when you refuse to leave the house, what’s a girl to do?  Make soup.

Baked Potato Soup
(barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Serves 6

Ingredients
1 head of garlic
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium leeks (white & green parts only)
5 – 6 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth (divided)
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 ½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
1/3 cup sour cream
ground black pepper

Toppings
minced green onions
bacon crumbles
sour cream
grated cheddar cheese

Directions
Cut leeks in half.  Rinse to remove any dirt.  Slice thin.

Rinse the head of garlic to remove any outside dirt.   Cut the top third off the head of garlic.  Pop out a bunch of the garlic cloves from this top third and mince them. Peel any loose skin off the remaining two thirds of garlic.

In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven melt the butter over medium heat.  Add leeks to butter.  Cook until soft (about 5 minutes), stirring frequently so they don’t brown.  Add minced garlic.  Cook for another minute.  Add the remaining whole 2/3 head of garlic, 5 cups of chicken broth, bay leaves and ½ teaspoon salt.

Reduce heat and simmer for 30 – 40 minutes.  Garlic should be tender enough to pierce gently with the tip of a knife.

Add potatoes.  Simmer, partially covered, for another 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are tender.

Discard bay leaves and garlic head.

Add sour cream and cook another 2-3 minutes.  Puree in pot using an immersion blender.   (You can also puree the soup in 2 batches using a regular blender or food processor.)  Don’t puree the soup too smooth.  It’s best if it’s still a bit lumpy, with some chunks of potato.  (If your soup’s too thick, here’s where you can add the extra cup of broth and simmer for another few minutes.)  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream, bacon, cheese and green onions.

Tuesdays with Dorie: Irish Soda Bread

Having a St. Patrick’s Day birthday has shaped my celebrations over the years.  A few things I can always count on.  Corned beef and cabbage.  Crowded bars (often with at least one drunk guy who suggests rubbing his blarney stone for good luck.)  And more green frosting and leprechaun cards than you can imagine.

I’ve tried to embrace the smidgen of Irish ancestry my mother assures me exists somewhere among our dumpling-loving Eastern European roots.  This has included several attempts to make Irish Soda Bread.  The resulting loaves have been as follows:  heavy, dry, inedible, brick-like, tossed in the trash and fed to the dog.  So, while my fingers were crossed that this one would have a better outcome, my hopes weren’t too high.  Besides, thanks to my husband, there was some surprise birthday cake and a bottle of wine waiting in the refrigerator.

Oh.  My.  God.  Can you say that about bread?  Especially one with no yeast?  And one that takes all of five minutes to make?  This was so good, I actually skipped a second helping of cake in favor of another slice of bread.

So, thank you, Dorie.  You made it a happy birthday indeed.

Thanks to Cathy at My Culinary Mission and Carla at Chocolate Moosey for hosting this week.  You can check out their blogs for more details on the recipe.

Tuesdays with Dorie: Rugelach

Growing up, every Christmas we had a marathon few days where we’d bake enough cookies to fortify a small army.  I’d always get excited seeing the bags of flour and sugar piled into the shopping cart.  Handwritten recipe cards would be pulled out from wherever they hid the rest of the year, the paper yellowed and smudged with buttery fingerprints.  Recipes would get rotated in and out, but there were always a select few that were made every year.  One of these was for cream cheese crescents.  They were a simple cream cheese dough, cut into triangles, filled with fruit jam, rolled into a crescent and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

The crescents were one of the few things my mom baked from scratch.  Don’t worry, I’m not spilling any secrets here.  Ask my mom, and she’ll tell you that most of the recipes I’ve asked for begin with the words, “Open the box . . .”

As soon as I looked at Dorie’s recipe for rugelach, I immediately got excited.  The dough sounded almost exactly like my mom’s.  And these are somewhat similar to the cookie I grew up with.  Except where that was a favorite childhood recipe, this one’s grown up and graduated from college.  It’s the cookie you eyed longingly but were told were not to touch because “Those are for Grandma’s bridge club.”  It’s the cookie that you finally did steal when no one was looking and then promptly hid in the potted palm because it was filled with raisins and nuts and (blech!) prunes.  But, now that you’re an adult, this is exactly the type of cookie you find comforting.  Rich and flakey, bursting with apricots, cherries, almonds – whatever you crave – it’s both sophisticated and down-to-earth.  The type of treat to be savored with a hot cup of tea, a good book and some fluffy slippers.

It’s not a difficult recipe, just very time-consuming.  Plan on making the components ahead of time, unless you’ve got a full day to devote to baking and a Top Model marathon.  You can save some time by buying the prune or apricot lekvar, but where’s the fun in that.   Besides, it robs you of the opportunity to scurry about the kitchen, muttering the word lekvar like some sort of fringe character from middle Earth.

Since I planned on sharing these with my toddler, I omitted the amaretto.  (In spite of my being at my wit’s end with his recent naptime strike.)  I substituted vanilla since one of my favorite jam recipes combines apricots with vanilla.  After tasting it, the vanilla flavor didn’t come through as much as I’d hoped, so I might try it again using vanilla paste.  The only problem I had was rolling the dough with the filling.  Half the filling seemed to spill out on the cutting board as I was rolling them and it was difficult the dough to roll up tightly.  My first batch lost their shape quite a bit.  I cut back on the fillings for the second batch which seemed to help.

One of the nice things about this recipe is that you can use any fillings or combinations you want.  I made half the dough with the apricot lekvar, dried cherries and almonds and the other half with the lekvar and a mix of dried cranberries, blueberries, cherries and golden raisins.  Both were excellent but I think I prefer the one without nuts.  The dough seemed to taste flakier and richer without the texture of the nuts competing with it.  I’ve seen a few people mention using Nutella for a filling as well which sounds absolutely amazing.

Thanks to Jessica at My Baking Heart and Margaret at The Urban Hiker for hosting this week.  You can check out their blogs for more details on the recipe.

Pork Carnitas

I’ve given up on trying to figure out the weather this winter.  For every few days of perfect chilly (I get to wear my cute new boots!) winter weather we’ve had there have been an equal number of bright sunny days in the 80’s.  My menu-planning is feeling a bit bi-polar.  And always in the wrong direction.  The week I stock the refrigerator with ingredients for soups and stews is when I wake up to warm sunshine.  And, of course, when the temperature finally drops enough to turn the fireplace on, the fridge is stocked with salad ingredients.

The perfect solution – pork carnitas.  On the one hand, they’re hearty and delicious enough to warm you up on a chilly day.  But pair them with a margarita and it instantly feels like summer.

This recipe, originally from The Homesick Texan, makes some of the best carnitas I’ve ever had.  Crunchy and perfectly carmelized on the outside.  Moist and falling apart on the inside.  It’s everything pork should be.

So, no matter the weather, cook yourself up a big pot of love and enjoy.  And, if it’s nice outside, open all the windows and make the neighbors jealous.

Pork Carnitas
Adapted (barely), from Smitten Kitchen who adapted it from The Homesick Texan Cookbook

Ingredients

3 pounds pork butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Kosher salt

For Serving
Tortillas
Sliced avocado
Chopped cilantro
Salsa

Directions
In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, combine the cubed pork, orange juice, lime juice, garlic, cumin, and salt.  Add enough water to barely cover the meat.

Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer, uncovered, for two hours.

After simmering, increase  heat to medium-high.  Stir and turn pork occasionally and cook for approx. 45 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated, leaving only the rendered pork fat.  (Mine took about 35 minutes, so watch it closely towards the end.)

Sizzle pork in the fat just long enough to brown at the edges.  Turn pork gently (the meat will be ready to fall apart) and brown on both sides.

Resist the urge to eat an entire serving while standing in front of the stove.

Serve carnitas on warm tortillas with toppings of your choice.

Tuesdays with Dorie — White Loaves

There are few things that beat the aroma of freshly baked bread.  (Except maybe chocolate chip cookies.)  Growing up, I remember driving past the Merita Bread Bakery off the I-4, rolling down the windows and breathing in a whiff of heaven.  It sure beat the heck out of other things I’ve lived near.   Namely citrus plants.  LAX.  A paper mill.  And a Budweiser brewery.  Bread factory wins hands down.

I love baking bread.  In my head, I have this peaceful image of effortlessly kneading out dough first thing in the morning, my kitchen lit by Rembrandt or Caravaggio, my mind focused and clear of any thoughts other than the work at hand.  Of course it never works out quite so zen, especially with a toddler underfoot.   But there’s still something so comforting in the process of mix, knead, 1st rise, 2nd rise and bake.  And in the fact that, over hundreds of years, it really hasn’t changed.  Sure, our tools are a little fancier (although I’m fairly sure my thrifty Czech great-grandmother would simply shake her head at the shiny Kitchenaid mixer) but we still follow the same steps.  Just like our grandmothers and their grandmothers and their grandmothers.   Five steps.  Hundreds of years.  The same delicious result.

As proof, after baking this bread and reading Goodnight Moon five times in a row, I settled down with a glass of wine and my husband for this week’s installment of Downton Abbey.  Cut to an exchange with Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen.  Well, I have no idea what happened in the scene because I was too busy staring at the beautiful loaf of bread arranged on her cutting board.  Which looked exactly like the ones I’d made!    My husband even paused the DVR and made the same comment.   So it’s good to know that whatever dire dilemmas the Crawleys and staff are facing, at least they’re eating well.

Beginnings

After months of saying I’m going to do it, I finally started a food blog.  Because I guess that’s what you do nowadays when you’re a thirtysomething woman trying to get some perspective on your life.  I think the hardest part has been deciding what to call this thing.  My husband lovingly suggested Too Much On My Plate Already and In the Weeds.  He’s nothing if not honest.

When I was little, I loved helping out in the kitchen.  Plus I knew that if I hung around long enough there’d be an egg beater to lick.  I continued to cook as I grew up, trying new recipes and discovering new foods and flavors.  Two things changed my perspective on food.  The first was moving to California.  I was overwhelmed by the abundance of Farmer’s Markets and had never tasted food so fresh.  I still vividly remember the first salad I ate here.

The second was my son being diagnosed with food allergies.  As I started to scrutinize the labels on everything that came into our house, I was shocked by what I saw.  Preservatives, chemicals and ingredients that served no purpose other than to make things as cheaply as possible.  Finding a loaf of bread that didn’t contain soy felt like a search for the holy grail.  I began to cook pretty much everything my son ate.  Our pantry transformed; our palates changed; and I discovered how rewarding it is to get back to the basics.  That’s what I’d like to share here.  The joys of cooking and of using fresh ingredients — things that seem to have been forgotten in our hectic lives.

Enjoy and Bon Appetit!